As we prepare for the release of One Angel Less (Hollywood Newshawk Book 2), we’d like to offer a brief preview of the first book in the series, The City Burns at Night, for those of you who have not yet read it.
These books are currently exclusive with Amazon. Covert League members can read an Advanced Copy of One Angel Less, prior to publication.
THE CITY BURNS AT NIGHT
Home from the War, hotshot reporter Tom Miller trades the frigid battlefields of Northern France for the warm sunshine and bright lights of Hollywood. Now dusting a chair at the Los Angeles Chronicle, Miller is looking to make his bones. He gets his chance after risking life and limb to rescue two endangered tykes from a brownstone inferno.
His bold heroics not only get him on the front page of every paper in town, but hot on the heels of a mysterious firebug who’s loose in the city. The trail leads him all over Tinseltown: from Beverly Hills and the Metropolitan Studios to Chino State prison and a seedy motel on the dark side of Los Angeles.
It also leads him into the arms of two very different women: Trudy Wilkes, a young ingenue looking to make her dreams of stardom come true; and Irene Faye, a sizzling blonde bombshell who will do anything to regain her career.
As he works overtime to track down the arsonist and break the story wide open, Miller finds himself being pulled deeper and deeper into the darker side of the Hollywood dream. In order to find the truth and get his man, he’s going to have to risk everything. Including his life.
SOON AS I hit the second floor of the apartment inferno, I was sure I’d never make it out alive. I still had another floor to go and it wasn’t down. It was hotter than Hellfire in there. The walls were all aflame. Pieces of burning ceiling dropped everywhere I turned.
My lungs were already full of scorching smoke. The floor looked like it would give out any minute. But there were two little tykes trapped on the top floor. And I was gonna get ‘em out. Or burn alive trying.
This was my introduction to Hollywood.
Yeah, Hollywood. They call it the “City of Dreams.” Most people think it’s nothing but glamour and glitz. That’s why hundreds of young kids come out here every day, hoping their dreams will carry them to the top.
A few actually make it. But most of them just end up on the bottom of the heap. Before they finally pack it up and head back home. Back to the real world.
Yeah, I came out here, too. Right after the war. But I’m a reporter. I got to see the rotten underbelly post haste. The dirt that they always try to sweep under the rug.
I learned my lesson real quick, too. These days, I just watch what goes on from the outside. But back then — well, sometimes I couldn’t resist the urge to get in on the act.
My big break came one night just a few weeks after I’d hit town. An apartment building downtown on Figueroa had gone up in a blaze. Like Hell had just sprung right up through the sidewalk.
I was fresh off the bus and had just dusted a chair at the Los Angeles Chronicle. The Dahlia case was only four months cold. Truman was halfway through his first term. And Bugsy Siegel could still sleep with one eye open. But not for long.
Needless to say, I was itching for a story. The kind that would make my editor’s hair stand on end. And get me a byline on the front page.
That conflagration was just the ticket I needed. Soon as I got wind of it, I saddled up my jalopy. I was down there faster than a politician on a spare nickel.
It was an old brownstone — well, old for L.A. anyways — and it had gone up like a box of matches. A bunch of rubber necks crowded the sidewalks around the trucks just to watch the inferno. It was better than anything playing at the local movie houses. And in living color, to boot.
The raincoat brigade tried whatever they could do to hose it down and get everybody out. All those people in the way gave old Chief Baker a fit of epic proportions.
Lucky me, I was in earshot.
“Get those people back behind the trucks!” he bellowed. “I don’t want anyone else getting hurt if this blaze gets out of hand!”
He shook his head and cued me in on what had really put a pinch in his gasket. “What kind of diseased mind sets fire to an apartment building where children live?”
Arson. That was just the bit of dirt I wanted to hear. There’d been a crazy match thrower running around town torching places left and right.
No rhyme or reason to any of it. The cops couldn’t finger the guy. This particular story had just gotten better. Now my hair was standing on end.
A couple of the soot-covered torch blazers dropped what they were doing. Pushed all the slack-jawed gawkers behind the barricades. I figured if I was going to get my chance to get closer, this was it.
Soon as the hose jockeys went past me, I vaulted the barricades myself and went in for a closer gander.
Too late! One of the boys in raincoats spotted me. “Hey, Chief! That guy just jumped the barricade! Stop him!”
I tried to make some ground, but the Chief was faster than I figured. He barreled his husky form right in my path. Then jabbed a cigar-thick index finger right into my chest like he was drilling for oil.
“Hey you!” he demanded. “Where you think you’re going?”
I flashed my credentials and got straight to the point. “Tom Miller from the LA Chronicle. Is this the work of the arsonist who’s been terrorizing the city?”
The Chief didn’t take too kindly to my line of questioning. I couldn’t blame him. He had bigger fish to fry. “Go chase an ambulance!” he barked. “Can’t you see I’m trying to keep this blaze from spreading?”
Just then, two small voices called out from over our heads. None of us wanted to believe it was what it sounded like. But we all looked up and hoped we were wrong.
There was a pair of young tykes still trapped in the building. They stuck their tiny noggins out of a top floor window. Tried to escape the flames and get some air that didn’t burn their poor little throats.
The Chief shouted, “My God, we’ve got to get those kids out of there! Quick, get a ladder up to that window!”
Two of the water boys ran for the ladder truck. But there was no way they could be fast enough for my taste. Not when the lives of two kiddos were involved.
That’s when I threw caution to the wind and hightailed it to the building myself.
If I’d thought about it a second longer, I still probably would have done the same thing. The whole place was ablaze and the chances were I wouldn’t make it out alive, either.
But there’s times when logic just doesn’t enter the equation. And this was one of those times.
I heard the Chief shout after me, “What’s that crazy reporter doing? Now we’ve got three people to rescue!”
Soon as I hoofed it through the front portal, the heat just about knocked me out. It was hotter than hellfire inside. The smoke was so thick you could practically walk on it.
Best I could tell, the place had wooden floors, wooden chair rails, and wooden ceilings. Hardly anything that wouldn’t burn.
I pulled my jacket up over my breather and made a break for the stairs. Just as I started up, I said a quick prayer that they wouldn’t fall out from under me.
I took the manual escalator two at a time and made it up to the second floor in seconds. Pieces of the ceiling fell all around me like burning hailstones.
But I wasn’t about to stop and think about how big of a loon I was. Had to keep going.
I two-stepped it up the last two flights until I finally hit the top floor. The smoke was even thicker and the heat was wearing me down. I knew I only had a few more minutes before we were all barbecue.
I barreled down the hall and lamped the apartment doorway. It was all ablaze, so there was no way I was getting in. Who knew if the kids were even still alive at this point?
I tried the adjoining room and hoped there was a connecting door. No such luck. But the wall was on fire and just might give way.
I grabbed a stuffed chair that was just starting to burn. I hoisted the thing up with everything I had. Hoped the kids were still by the window and didn’t want to think about the alternative.
I chucked that big rump cushion as hard as I could.
It smashed part of the way through. Got stuck between the plaster and the lathing strips.
The chair made a big enough dent that I was able to kick it the rest of the way and make a good-sized hole. I peered through the smoke and glimmed the kids.
They were on the floor by the window. Not moving. Not good.
Hoped I wasn’t too late. I shoved my six-foot-frame through the burning hole and crashed through. My jacket caught fire, so I yanked it off quick before I turned into a blazing marshmallow myself.
I rushed over to the kids and hoped for the best. Still breathing. Thank God! I scooped the little moppets up, one in each arm, and carefully went back the way I came.
Think I only hit three steps total on the way back down. I barely remember any of it. Saw even less. My only thought was to get those two out before the whole thing came crashing down.
THE CHIEF was still trying to get a ladder up to the window when we barreled out the doorway. He looked like Santa Claus had just dropped on his front porch. “I — I don’t believe it! It’s that crazy reporter! He’s got the kids!”
The fire snuffers and the screaming mother rushed over and grabbed the tykes. She’d run down to the market for just a few minutes.
Only I wasn’t in any condition to complain. I needed air. Fresh, cool air that didn’t burn when it went down. I took a dive right there on the pavement.
Just then, the whole igloo melted in a giant heap behind me.
* * *
I PROBABLY should have gone to the bandage factory. My arm and my back were a little scorched, but nothing that a little iodine wouldn’t fix later. But aside from rescuing those kids, I hadn’t run into that blaze for nothing.
I had a story to write. One I hoped my new editor would notice.
I hightailed it over to the nearest squawk box. Despite all the smoke I’d already inhaled, I stuck a gasper in my yap and set fire to it. I needed it bad.
I fumbled in my pockets for some change. Then dialed up the copy editor. Dictated the whole thing for the evening edition. He thought I was making up the heroics. But I assured him I had the burns to prove it.
Figured I’d earned a stiff drink before heading back to the office, so I stopped off at a nearby gin mill and threw back a swig.
The bartender knew that wouldn’t be enough, so he passed me another. After a few more, I was ready to hit the skids. I hoped my story had gotten some attention.
Little did I know.
The whole floor jumped up and applauded as soon as I ankled my soot-covered form through the portal. I’d never gotten so many hand-shakes and “atta-boys” in my life.
Everybody jumped up from their typewriters and crowded around me. You’d have thought Lindbergh had just landed.
But then the boss trotted in and he didn’t look too jake. Threw a quick damper on the whole shebang.
Looked like it might be time to sharpen my pencil elsewhere.
“Miller!” he shouted.
Hal Jenkins was a newsman to the bone. Short, round in the middle, shaped like a bowling pin. The few hairs still on the top of his head looked like they’d been drawn on. Could barely see through his half-glasses because of the fingerprints.
Jenkins was as old and crusty as a broken down covered wagon. He’d started in the newspaper business when he was just a kid back in Chicago, selling headlines on the street corner and clawing his way up from there.
All I could do was snap to attention. “Yes sir, Mr. Jenkins?”
He paced around like he was sizing me up for a noose. “I realize you’re new, but when I hired you, I thought you understood that we just report the news around here. We don’t make it!”
Some editors didn’t like hotshot reporters. Looked like Jenkins was one of ‘em. I’d definitely overplayed my hand. All I could do was state my case and hope for the best.
“Well, I apologize for that, Sir. But when I saw those kids, I just — ”
Jenkins let out a big belly laugh that nearly made me drop my choppers. “Congratulations, Miller! That was first rate! Fine job, a real fine job!”
Looked like I had impressed the boss after all. He glowed like a schoolgirl on her first date.
“This is our best front page story yet! ‘CHRONICLE REPORTER SAVES KIDS IN BURNING BLAZE!’ Not only that, but you made the front page of every other paper in this city, too!”
Jenkins grabbed a copy of the late edition and thrust it into my mitts. Sure enough, not only did I have the byline on the top story, but I was the top story. Couldn’t have asked for more than that.
Jenkins turned to hustle out then got stopped by a quick idea. “Say, Miller… how’d you like to come to a party to-night?”
Fiesta with the boss and his cronies didn’t sound like a bad idea. This day was just getting better. “Sure,” I chirped back. “But if you don’t mind, I’d like to go home and change first.”
Jenkins let out a chuckle like I was the turkey who’d just showed up for Thanksgiving dinner. “Certainly! You don‘t want to meet W.H. looking like that!”
He let out another good belly laugh and slapped me on the back (which didn’t feel too good). Left me puzzled as he chuckled his way back to his office. It had all sounded aces, so I wanted to know why I suddenly had egg on my puss.
So I grabbed one of my compadres, Gil Merton. He was a heavyset fellow with thick glasses and thinning hair.
“Say, who’s W.H.?” I queried.
“WHO’S W.H.?” Gil had the same goofy look, but luckily didn’t waste any time spelling it out.
“W.H. Harper! You work for him! He owns the Chronicle! Pal, you are definitely on your way up!”
Oh, that W.H.
Of course, I knew the moniker. Who didn’t? I just wasn’t used to hearing it without the surname attached.
W.H. Harper was the biggest newspaper fat cat in the country. He owned papers in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and all points in between. Not to mention magazines, radio stations, and picture production.
I turned around to find Jenkins’ little secretary, Miss Janet Gronchi, staring me down.
She was a mousy little cupcake with a sweet little chassis and a cold expression. Could’ve given Buster Keaton a run for his money. The name sounded Italian, but she wasn’t anything like the dago wrens I knew back East.
If she’d ever let her dark hair down out of that tight bun and lost the horn-rimmed cheaters, she might have been a real cutie. But Hell would have to ice over first.
She handed me an index card. I might’ve been the hero of the day, but you’d never tell it from her expression. Or lack thereof.
“What’s this?” I queried.
“The address to Mr. Harper’s residence,” she answered. “It’s on Palisades Beach Road in Santa Monica. Do you need directions?”
“No, sweetheart, I think I can find it,” I chirped. Gave her a little wink as I took the card. But there was no melting that bonnet.
She asked, “Do you have a suit any nicer than the ones you’ve worn to work? I assume you don’t own a tuxedo. It’s a black tie affair. But considering the circumstances of your invitation, a well-pressed, dark suit will suffice.”
She had a way of asking a question and insulting you at the same time. Lovely quality for a dame.
I thanked her for the fashion tips and pulled a pair of gaspers from my pocket. Before I could get them burning, she turned on her heel and sashayed back to her desk.
She may have been straight as an arrow, but that walk sure had some swing. Had to be for my benefit, I was sure.
I ankled out the portal and took the jalopy back to my apartment stash. I still had an appointment with a cold shower and a bottle of iodine.
Those days I was holed up in the Bellem Building down on Hill Street. Two rooms, fifth floor. No Taj Mahal, but it was close to work, cheap on rent, and had hot water. Most of the time, anyways.
Across the street was a small-time movie house. I could see the marquis outside my window. For some reason, it only played pictures that had aged a little. Even Silents from time to time. Wasn’t sure why, but I had my suspicions.
Figured one night I’d catch a flick there when I didn’t have anything better to do. But days like that were hard to come by.
And I wanted to keep it that way.
After a cool shower, it was time for the iodine. That hurt even worse than the burns, but a glass of giggle juice and another gasper helped take the edge off.
The minx was right about me not owning a tux. But I had a dark suit that I reserved for weddings and funerals. I got out the hot iron and made sure my creases were sharp as a blade. Then I finished getting dolled up, grabbed my lid, and hopped in my bucket for the drive out to the ocean.
I knew the way. The Santa Monica Pier had been my first stop after hitting the West Coast. Thanks to Uncle Sam, I’d seen the Atlantic from both sides. I’d been itching to touch the Pacific for a change, just to say I’d done it.
Soon as I’d gotten got off the bus, I didn’t even stop to get my own set of wheels. I’d hopped straight on the Red Car and rode it all the way to the end.
Spent the whole afternoon just taking in the sights (not to mention all the beautiful quails in two-piece swimmers), smelling the salt air, and even a few rides on the Blue Streak Racer.
It had felt like I was back at Coney Island. Felt real good and then some.
After three years of freezing my keister off fighting the Nazis, it’d been just what I needed. Just like summer on Brighton Beach. And out here it lasted all year long. My idea of paradise.
I just didn’t know it would be so deceptive.
* * *